Avian flu causes widespread deaths as UK shortages loom

Over 50 million birds have died amid a record outbreak of avian flu in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

This year’s total of 50.54m birds has surpassed a previous high set in 2015.

Flocks in over 40 states have been affected, more than double the number of states in the previous outbreak.

The disease is spread by wild birds which transmit the virus through feathers, faeces and direct contact.

“Wild birds continue to spread HPAI [highly pathogenic avian influenza] throughout the country as they migrate, so preventing contact between domestic flocks and wild birds is critical to protecting US poultry,” Rosemary Sifford, the USDA’s chief veterinary officer, said.

In a 3 November announcement about the ongoing outbreak, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said that while the risk to the general public remains low, it is advising Americans to take “preventative measures” – such as avoiding direct contact with wild birds and avoiding unprotected contact with poultry – to prevent spreading the disease to humans, pets, birds and other animals.

“This applies not just to workplace or wildlife settings, but potentially to household settings where people have backyard flocks or pet birds with potential exposures to wild or domestic infected birds,” the statement added.

While cases of human infections are rare, the CDC’s website warns that the virus could spread when airborne – such as via droplets or dust – if it gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth, or is inhaled.

The news in the US comes as the UK was also warned of looming shortages this Christmas.

Half of the free-range poultry grown for Christmas in the UK have died or been culled because of the bird flu epidemic, according to British Poultry Council CEO, Richard Griffiths.

He told the environment, food and rural affairs committee of UK MPs this week that free-range poultry had been hit “very, very hard”.

About 600,000 of the usual 1.2 million to 1.3 million free-range turkeys and geese grown for Christmas had already been “directly affected” by the disease. And of the total 8.5 million to 9 million turkeys produced each year for the festive period, Griffiths said about 1.6 million had already died of the disease or been culled.